In rare instance, Kerala consumer court orders patient to pay compensation to her doctor. Here’s why

The Palakkad District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission dismissed a consumer complaint accusing a psychiatrist of breaching doctor-patient confidentiality.

BySumit Jha

Published Jan 18, 2024 | 11:30 AMUpdatedJan 18, 2024 | 11:30 AM

In India, doctor-patient confidentiality is primarily governed by the Indian Medical Council. (Shutterstock)

In a surprising turn of events, a consumer court in Kerala has ordered a woman to pay a compensation amount of ₹25,000 to a psychiatrist for dragging the latter to court with “malicious intent”.

Dismissing a complaint that alleged breaching of doctor-patient confidentiality, the Palakkad District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission ordered the complainant, Amrutha, also of Palakkad, to compensate the doctor.

The complainant was reportedly dissatisfied with a certificate Dr Deepa Nair had issued to her estranged husband.

The case

The psychiatrist had certified that Amrutha was suffering from a depressive disorder with psychotic features. Amrutha’s husband produced the certificate in the Palakkad Family Court, where the couple was locked in a divorce case.

Following this, Amrutha filed a consumer complaint, alleging a breach of doctor-patient confidentiality. She also claimed that the document was fabricated.

During the hearing, Dr Nair argued that the complainant had indeed been a patient, undergoing treatment for depression. The doctor further clarified that the certificate was issued in good faith and that she was unaware of the couple’s deteriorating relationship.

Based on this argument, the complainant requested the court to dismiss the complaint. Upon examining a copy of the certificate dated 11 August, 2021, the Commission observed that the document was a duplicate, labelled, “True Copy”, issued by the Family Court.

The Commission stated that since the complainant had obtained the document from the Family Court, it was reasonable to consider the doctor’s claim — that the certificate was issued for the sole purpose of handing it over to the complainant’s husband — as plausible.

“The complainant has no case that she had informed the opposite party not to divulge the details of her condition to the husband. Her sole claim is that she was not suffering from any adverse psychological problem,” the Commission observed.

Additionally, the Commission noted that there was no deficiency in the doctor’s service regarding the issuance of the certificate to the complainant’s husband.

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The observations

The consumer court also viewed that the complainant had not established that the doctor concerned was aware of the strained relationship between the complainant patient and her husband.

Concluding that there was no wrongdoing, irregularity, or breach of any established norms when Dr Nair provided the certificate to the complainant’s husband, the Commission added that in societal norms, when one spouse seeks information from a doctor about their partner, the typical assumption would be that they were in a harmonious relationship.

“We find that the opposite party was not any different. The complainant has failed to prove any contra situation that would make the doctor suspicious of the motivations of the complainant’s husband,” the Commission said.

In assessing the actual mental health condition of the complainant and whether she suffered from depression, the Commission considered the certificate presented by the complainant, sought from another psychiatrist, as evidence of her sound mental health.

The certificate, issued by a consultant psychiatrist, indicated that the complainant was experiencing “marital disharmony”.

“The further observation is that the complainant had an adjustment disorder, and took Sertraline for five months. Got better about eight months ago,” the certificate mentioned.

The Commission acknowledged that Sertraline was commonly prescribed for the management of depressive disorders. It also took note that the complainant showed improvement approximately eight months ago, in February 2021, under the care of the accused doctor Dr Deepa Nair.

Based on its assessment, the Commission concluded that the complainant had filed a false and vexatious complaint.

“Thus, we find that the complainant had full knowledge that she was undergoing psychological disorders and was under the doctor’s treatment. The pleadings in this complaint, therefore, would be nothing short of malicious and vexatious, made willfully to harass a doctor for no fault of hers,” the Commission observed.

The Commission said that regrettably, “we find ourselves without the authority to penalise the complainant under the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act of 2019. This absence of punitive or compensatory measures only serves to favour individuals similar to the complainant, who may make unfounded allegations without consideration for the potential harm caused unjustly”.

“But justice and equity calls for compensating the OP (opposite party) who was falsely accused and dragged into a dispute. Therefore, we impose a compensation of ₹25,000 payable by the complainant to the doctor and a cost of ₹15,000 payable within 45 days from the date of receipt of a copy of this order,” the Commission ordered.

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Patient-doctor confidentiality 

In India, doctor-patient confidentiality is primarily governed by the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations, 2002.

This regulation emphasises the importance of maintaining patient confidentiality and outlines certain exceptions, such as when there is a serious and identified risk to a specific person and/or community, or in the case of notifiable diseases.

Additionally, the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, also prohibits the disclosure of patient information obtained during care, with certain exceptions, such as the involvement of other health professionals or ensuring the safety of the patient.

While there are no specific regulations in India that protect the privacy and confidentiality of patient data other than the code of ethics, the legal framework emphasises the significance of maintaining patient confidentiality and provides certain exceptions to this principle.